Until the Ukraine-Russia war started, Italy had been heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies for decades, second only to Germany. In 2021, Russia was the main supplier of natural gas to Italy, accounting for around 40% of natural gas imports.
Doing away with this supply source is likely to come with a high price tag. Enter Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Mattei plan for Africa. It lays the groundwork for an Italian role reversal on the energy scene, namely on gas supplies, by turning Italy into a major energy hub, distributing gas from North Africa and the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. While Italy does not have the resources required to become a gas producer, the Mattei plan would make it a transit country for African gas flowing North, relying on existing infrastructure by reversing the flow on current pipelines.
What a difference a year makes. In early September 2022 Gastech, the world’s largest conference for gas, LNG, hydrogen and climate technologies, convened in Milan under a cloud of pessimism about Europe’s capacity to get through the winter without reliable supplies of Russian gas. Indeed, the outlook was dire: President Vladimir Putin was threatening to turn off the taps; the European Union was busy making emergency rationing plans for households and industry. The former fell flat, while the latter remained on the shelves. A year on, as Gastech meets in, EU’s gas tanks are already at capacity: 89.89% at mid-August, according to Gas Infrastructure Europe, against a 90% target to be reached in November.
Today, Gastech delegates will be faced with a rapidly changing energy scenario playing out in Europe. On the tip of the iceberg, Russian gas is partially – significant amounts still flow West – being replaced by LNG from the United States and other LNG producers; increased supplies are flowing via existing pipelines from Algeria and Norway – although Libya is still producing below potential. Germany and Italy have fast equipped themselves with degasifying plants to allow for larger intakes of LNG. But a much more radical turnaround is in the making. The North-South, East-West gas main route from Russia is out; a new South-North track from Africa and the Middle East, via Mediterranean, is in. Such structural change is here to stay, and Italy’s Mattei plan is at the heart of it.
Enrico Mattei was the founder of Italian energy group Eni. Back in the 1950s he had a vision of Italy as a major energy hub, distributing gas from North Africa and the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. Nearly three quarters of a century later, Meloni announced the shaping of the Mattei plan in Addis Ababa last April. The plan itself will be laid out in October when Italy hosts a summit with African nations on energy cooperation. While the specifics have not been disclosed, three key factors come into play: Italy’s track record; the overall Europe-Africa relationship, including sensitive issues such as migration and security; and the possible future inclusion of non-fossil energy sources, such as hydrogen and renewables. By calling this new African and Mediterranean energy strategy after Mattei, Italy is sending a powerful signal to African countries: its approach is not only about royalties, it is also about long-term partnerships.
The October summit will seek to indicate the extent of cooperation envisaged by Italy. What is already clear is that the Mattei plan will be more than just energy and gas. Meloni has already expressed that economic support to, and stronger ties with, Africa are part of a development strategy that would contribute to reducing illegal immigration flows across the Mediterranean. Crucially, it will also aim to mitigate the security threat emanating from the dual presence in the Sahel region of jihadist movements and Wagner mercenaries. The recent Niger coup only heightens the risks, increasing the imperative to bolster regional stability. Enhanced security would be a collateral benefit: the Mattei plan is mentioned in the US-Italy joint statement from Meloni’s visit to Washington last July.
Gas is considered a “transitional” energy source that will continue to power industry and consumption for quite some time. The Mattei plan is not only about substituting Russian gas, as it also outlines a strategy to develop and secure supplies of non-fossil sources – hydrogen and renewables – from Africa, whose potential in those areas dwarf Russia’s. Here again, Gastech’s extensive agenda finds a fascinating case study in Italy’s new energy strategy.
The Mattei plan will require additional infrastructure across the Mediterranean, as well as largely new infrastructure in Africa. Italy cannot manage this alone; the EU and international financial institutions will have to step in. Within Europe, however, the energy Main Street will continue to run on the North-South axis. But in the opposite direction.